Slang Expressions Navigate Through Internet Censorship in China

March 12, 2010 11:34 am Last Updated: October 1, 2015 8:36 pm
(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese netizens have found a creatively flamboyant, sometimes off-color, new way to voice their discontent about the social dilemmas in China—with less chance of raising a red flag. They have invented slang Internet expressions in both Chinese and English.

The verbal banter began in early 2009 when authorities launched a campaign called the “Special Action to Harness Vulgar Internet Practices,” a reflection of recent measures to tighten Internet control in China. Many websites have already become casualties of the program.

In one internet communication, an irritated netizen created a pun to vent his anger, adapting a slang expression and curse in Chinese: “CaoNiMa,” (literally, “grass mud horse”).

What began as a sarcastic joke resonated throughout the country within a week. A hybrid Chinese character was created by fusing half of each of the three Chinese characters which make up the pejorative expression. The creative spirit inspired cooperative efforts in the form of stories, songs, and websites. Someone created a video featuring a South American alpaca.

The “horse” soon became an Internet icon, quickly gaining notoriety as one of the “Top Ten Mythical Creatures of China.” Business opportunities abounded, and the creature found its way into merchandizing, running the gamut from stuffed animals to balloons to video games and buttons. Agricultural prospects were even explored.

Inspired by the trend to use slang expressions, netizens created more puns such as “Yakeshit”—a giant lizard which has also joined the ranks of the “Top Ten Mythical Creatures of China.”

The Chinese character of “Yakeshit” is composed of the three characters of the phrase, “Ya-Ke-Xi” which means “good” or “great” in Uyghur, mocking the Chinese authorities’ recent promotional TV program, “The Party’s Policy Ya-Ke-Xi,” which showcased the gratefulness and admiration of the Xinjiang Uyghurs toward the CCP’s policies—ironically just in the aftermath of the CCP’s most recent measures of extreme repression in the region.

Another example is “DangZhongYang” (private center) which combines the three Chinese characters representing the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The morphed characters resemble a pair of pants.

Near the beginning of 2010, English slang words also began to surface on Chinese Web sites, including: "Gunvernment": gun + government or totalitarian government; "Shamehai": shame + Shanghai; "Antizen": ant + citizen, a derogatory term for common people; and "Conferensleeping": conference + sleeping, or the common phenomena of Chinese officials falling asleep during conferences.

There are also references to events, such as "Cheat miles per hour": a reference to an incident in which a college student was killed by a car speeding at 70 mph in a Hangzhou street, while the driver, the son of a high-ranking official, “got away with the act"; "Suicided": a reference to victims, including Falun Gong practitioners, who are tortured to death during police custody in China, while authorities claim they “committed suicide."

Other references to social realities include "Faceblock": Facebook + block or the reality of Facebook in China; "Democrazy": democracy + crazy, or the price of advocating democracy in China; "Freedamn": freedom + damn, a reference to the state of human rights in China; "Harmany": harm + many, a reference to the so-called “harmony” promoted by the CCP; and "Propoorty": property + poor, a reference to the sky-high housing costs in China.

As a grassroot-level phenomenon, the Internet trend has been compared to that of Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985) by James C. Scott.

Instead of having a dampening effect as intended, the latest rounds of tightening controls on Internet censorship in China have inspired some netizens to channel their creative energies while evading the censorship of day-to-day life and sounding out on public life.

Sharing the power of their observations—including life’s not so little ironies—they are still able to let the world in on their views.